Canadian sports talk radio is a shocking discovery for a hockey fan in the United States. It's obvious why: No one in the U.S. talks about hockey unless they have to. This isn't totally a bad thing. In truth, it helps limit the amount of reactionary takes that come along with any type of discussion about a mainstream interest.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, draw a lot of mainstream interest on Canadian sports talk radio. And it's exhausting to listen to. Upon discovering TSN's radio app and Sportsnet's Hockey Central at Noon podcast a few years ago, it became clear how much attention the Maple Leafs command. Whether that's always been the case or something that has developed over the last decade-plus of middling play is not something that I as an outsider completely understand. But given the nature of sports talk and the long, storied history of the Maple Leafs, I feel confident in assuming that it's not a new thing.
In general, following the Maple Leafs is a wild ride. This past week was a perfect example of that.
A week in the life of the Maple Leafs
Toronto went 3-1-0 in the four games prior to the Saturday night debacle against the Sabres. The team scored five goals or more in the three wins (including a 6-1 dismantling of the Boston Bruins) and fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins -- one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference -- by a single goal.
All in all, it was a successful string of games, but the Sabres are a bottom feeder who are actively trying to fail. Allowing them to score six goals on a Saturday night was not going to fly.
But the real problems started three nights later when the Nashville Predators -- one of the best teams in the Western Conference (not kidding) -- destroyed the Maple Leafs in Toronto. Nashville scored nine goals, eight of which came before the Maple Leafs had one, and ultimately disgraced them with a 9-2 finish.
Another night, another Leafs jersey on the ice. This time during play. pic.twitter.com/mut2YS8Vnp— Josh Gold-Smith (@GoldAndOrSmith) November 19, 2014
Jerseys were thrown and hot takes were conceived. It was like that World Cup commercial where all those couples had babies (see: made sex) because their team won. Instead of babies, it was takes.
Leadership group needs to change
Dion Phaneuf is the captain of the Maple Leafs and Phil Kessel is the best player on the Maple Leafs. Both players are polarizing figures in Toronto.
Phaneuf is dragged through the mud on a regular basis because he's good but not good enough, while Kessel goes through peaks and valleys depending on how productive he is at the time of the conversation. Another determining factor is how responsive he is in media availability.
After the Sabres game he wasn't responsive:
Kessel's exact reaction when asked for comment: "Get away from me."— Jonas Siegel (@jonasTSN1050) November 16, 2014
After the Predators game he was too responsive:
"I think that's pretty classless to throw your jersey on the ice like that."
Many have expressed that the Maple Leafs leadership group is one of the biggest problems with how the team has performed in recent years. This isn't a new development but it was expressed more aggressively on the heels of two jaw-dropping defeats.
Interestingly enough it remained an issue even after they ended the skid.
They lose even when they win
Two nights later the Maple Leafs defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning by a considerable margin, 5-2. The game was played in Toronto and was a much-needed win against a legitimate opponent. But instead of being a release the game only provided more pressure.
That's because the Maple Leafs decided to refrain from saluting the home crowd, which has become a tradition in Toronto. After every home win, the Maple Leafs line up for a team handshake and then raise their sticks to the crowd before leaving the ice.
The team lined up for the handshake but never raised their sticks.
It became a thing.
The players denied it had anything to do with anything other than changing things up while in the midst of a slump. But the timeline was too coincidental and the outrage was still too present for it to go overlooked.
The leadership group was criticized and more debate ensued about whether Kessel, Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Jonathan Bernier, Nazem Kadri and/or James van Riemsdyk were the right collection of players to build the Toronto Maple Leafs around.
But that thing was partially resolved this past Saturday night when the Leafs handily defeated the Red Wings and finished the game with a salute to the fans.
The national nightmare had ended, at least, for one night.
Always getting back on the ride
Watch that Vine with the audio on. The amount of joy that can be heard in that laugh is unsettling. But it is an indication of how much relief came from Saturday's win. The team played well, they won the game and they saluted the fans. Whether their chances of making the playoffs improved doesn't matter to the largest denominator; it only matters that they won right then, right there.
That isn't a good mindset when evaluating a team. But if the team is merely a form of entertainment to occupy your time, akin to a roller coaster, then the peaks and valleys aren't just part of the attraction; It's the whole point of going on the ride.
Being a casual observer of the Maple Leafs is fascinating because the fans truly love the team. But it's not always clear whether their love for the team outweighs their love of hating the team. Sometimes, it seems like the latter, because let's face it: love is always more interesting when you have some drama.
Toronto isn't unique from any other major city that has a wildly popular sports franchise. In the United States, football teams typically receive this kind of attention and the debates heard on Toronto sports radio are very similar to the ones on Philadelphia sports radio that are similar to the debates heard on ESPN national radio.
The team names and sports are different but the sentiments are the same: I like when my favorite team wins and I really hate it when they lose.
The Maple Leafs won on Saturday night, so things shouldn't be too bad on Monday. It certainly doesn't hurt that the Edmonton Oilers were blown out on Saturday night, because if there's one thing people love to talk about it's the Edmonton Oilers losing.
In fact, they actually might love it more than they love hating the Maple Leafs.